By K.N. Pandita
The formidable and inhospitable Himalayan Range called Pir Panchal has been penetrated. The 11.3 kilometer long tunnel linking Banihal with Qazigund and onwards to Baramulla has been completed. This is Asia’s longest tunnel on which work was begun in July 2005. Considering the features of the tunnel, the entire plan and engineering skill of highest degree it involved, there is justification for the IRCON to have taken a little more than the stipulated time to bring it to completion. The oldest tunnel we had once was almost at the height of ten thousand feet on Banihal top. Dug during the reign of Maharaja Hari Singh, the army used it extensively for transportation of men and material when the tribal raid of 1947 on the valley took place. As communication and transportation increased between Kashmir and the rest of the country, another tunnel for road transport called Jawahar Tunnel was made during the days of Bakhshi Ghulam Muhammad. It continues to be used till date.
Movement of men and material along the existing road link has increased manifold and it was felt that the road transport and the tunnel in use would be grossly inadequate to meet the requirements of the region. Therefore the grand idea of bringing Kashmir on the rail map of India was pursued. With the conceptualization of Kashmir rail project, entire concept of connectivity between Kashmir and Ladakh regions with the rest of the country changed. Many years were spent on study and survey and many expert opinions were obtained before the project was put on the blue print and the green signal was given. IRCON found that it had the requisite engineering skill and logistics of undertaking this incredible feat. The details of the tunnel are mind boggling. The tunneling has been done with the technical assistance of an Austrian Company. Mr. A.P. Mishra, member-engineer of the Union Ministry of Railways flew in yesterday and made a trial run in the locomotive engine from Qazigund to Banihal to be sure that the track and all ancillary works are in place. This will be followed by detailed exercise undertaken by the Commissioner Railway Safety well before 31 January 2013 before giving green signal for chugging of passenger train in the sector in February-March 2013.
Going into the minute details of this project will give an idea what modern tunneling is. The most conspicuous thing about this rail tunnel is that the engineers and planners have taken into consideration almost all safety measures to ensure that in case of an emergency or exigency immediate help is at hand. Two helipads have been constructed on each side of the tunnel for emergency landing and rescue. A vehicular track by the side of rail track has been constructed inside the tunnel for making it possible for an emergency vehicle to carry machine and men to any inside spot. CCTVs have been installed to monitor the movement and to detect if a snag develops during the passage of the train. There is state of the art communication system made functional for 24 hours. Then there will be two 33 KV power generators, one on each end of the tunnel and one of the two will be run on non-stop basis. The other generator is to standby in case the first generator develops a snag. The passenger train is supposed to travel at a speed of 120 kms per hour through the tunnel. Thus there is foolproof arrangement for ventilation, power supply, communication and monitoring throughout the 11.3 kilometer length of the tunnel. All this makes it a real marvel which brings pride and dignity to the engineers and planners of this world famous project.
1300 workers and 150 engineers deployed on the project costing 1691 crore rupees moved 7500 metric tons of steel, 3,28,000 cubic meters of concrete and did 10 lakh cubic meters of underground excavation to construct the tunnel. The Qazigund-Banihal rail link will reduce 35 kilometer distance to almost half with 11.3 kms covered by the rail track and the remaining 6.7 kilometers in open.
This is a great moment in the history of the country and the State. Kashmir’s age old isolation comes to a final end with the opening of this link. It is bound to change the entire economic complexion of all the three regions of the State. At the same time, it is a big step forward in boosting the security of our northern frontier. Undoubtedly this will give almost new contours to the tourist industry in the State. We should expect the Department of Tourism to gear up to receive double and treble the number of tourist to Kashmir and Ladakh once the railway starts running from Udhampur to Baramulla through the historic Pir Panchal tunnel. Its immediate impact on ordinary citizen of the valley and Ladakh region will be the reduced transportation cost of essential goods bringing economic relief to them. Once the two ancillary projects of rail link from Jammu to Poonch and from Barmulla to Lolab are also completed, we will have a widespread railway network in the northern region that will cater to our economic and security needs. We salute the planners, engineers and workers of Pir Panchal rail tunnel for their dedicated service to the nation. They have brought pride and name to the Montherland.